St Matthews Church, Central Falls, RI

Biography of Right Rev. Joseph Alfred Laliberte

From the founding of St. Matthew’s parish of Central Falls, Rhode Island, in 1906, to the completion and dedication of the magnificent $600,000 church in December, 1929, Right Rev. Joseph Alfred Laliberte has been the devoted leader, the inspiring teacher, and the able and successful financier of the parish he brought into existence. He is still the honored pastor of the devoted and energetic people of the parish of St. Matthew.

St. Matthew’s parish is one of the typical French-Canadian parishes of the United States, a splendid example of what can be achieved by limited resources when there is thrift, self-denial, and generous devotion. It was originally a part of the parish of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Mary, of Central Falls, a French-speaking parish; but on October 13, 1906, the Right Rev. Matthew Harkins, bishop of the diocese of Providence, separated three hundred families living in the northern and northwestern parts of the parent parish and erected the new parish of St. Matthew’s. In an official letter dated October 13, 1906, he appointed Rev. Joseph Alfred Laliberte, then vicar of St. Anne’s Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, pastor of the newly created parish, and instructed him to immediately set about the task of organizing the parish and providing the necessary housing for church and school. The three hundred families of the new parish were all in modest circumstances, all depending upon their labor for their living, most of them engaged in manual labor, but they were also thrifty, zealous, and generous. On October 16, 1906, the charter and statutes of the parochial organization were drawn up, and Father Laliberte was made treasurer, with authority to expend $8,000 for the purchase of land as a site for the parochial buildings. He chose a triangle of land, southward-sloping, and enclosed on the northwest by Lonsdale Avenue, on the northeast by Dexter Street, and on the south by West Hunt Street. That triangle was then a bank of sand twenty feet above the sidewalk, covered with underbrush, and requiring a vast amount of work to put it in shape. The parishioners objected vigorously to the choice made, but Father Laliberte made a tactful appeal, asking that they imagine the land divided into three hundred lots and that every family buy one, at thirty dollars each. He appealed to their loyalty and their religious zeal, collected the $9,000, and began work, supported by a fine spirit of loyalty and cooperation on the part of his people. Three months after the formation of the parish all was working smoothly, and on January io, 1907, it was decided that, at a cost of §50,000, a building which should serve as a school and chapel should be erected. Fontaine and Kinnicutt, noted architects of Woonsocket, drew the plans, and the construction work was entrusted to Dorais and Dupuis. The cornerstone was laid July 28, 1907, and blessed by Bishop Harkins, with imposing ceremonies. By January 1, 1908, the building was far enough advanced to permit the removal of the place of worship from the gymnasium of the Church of Notre Dame, where services of St. Matthew’s had been held, to the attic room of the new chapel-school. While Father Laliberte was in Canada, visiting his aged parents, the men of the parish in less than fifteen minutes, joyously carried the temporary altar, the ornaments, the altar linens, the objects of worship, the chandeliers, the altar stone, the sacred vases, through Garfield and Dexter streets to the new school. In the attic room under the roof were installed altar, communion table, confessionals, and chairs for those who should hear the four Masses which were said each Sunday. \ hen completed and furnished, the chapel-school on Dexter Street cost $53,137.57. It is a beautiful two-story structure 117 by 65 feet, built of yellow brick, with a border of gray granite outlining doors and windows. The chapel, seating eight hundred and fifty persons, occupies the first floor. The second floor provides six well-lighted and well-ventilated classrooms, and the attic room under the cupola and roof-incline, 62 by 90 feet, served as a meeting place for the parish societies and as a temporary chapel for several months. In the autumn of 1908, the Sisters of St. Anne de Lachine took charge of the school, and they were housed in a rented residence on Dexter Street. A building on the corner of West Hunt and Dexter streets was also rented for use as a rectory, and on May 22, I 9 I2 > it was decided to purchase both buildings, at a cost of $7,500, and move them to the church land. Repairs and alterations were made at a cost of $1,700.

As the membership of the parish increased and the task of building occupied more and more of Father Laliberte’s time, he and his vicar were aided by Father J. A. D’Amours, first without official appointment, but later as vicar. As years passed, the ability, discretion, devotion and personality of Father Laliberte, with the cooperation of his people, brought both material and spiritual progress, and by 1917, when the tenth anniversary of the founding of the parish was celebrated, the parish numbered five hundred families and was looking forward to the time when it could build a beautiful and permanent church edifice. Hard work, self-denial, and generous giving had made the chapel-school possible, and the same spirit of devotion made possible the magnificent $600,000 church, which was dedicated Sunday, December 8, 1929.

The new church is situated south of the chapel-school and lies along West Hunt Street. It is designed in the French decorated Gothic style, characterized by extra large window openings and relatively small wall areas. Adhering to the typical Gothic plan of nave, apse, side aisles, ambulatory, narthex, and choir, the exterior has much of the spiritual beauty of the true Gothic style, which has been called “the material expression of the spiritual gropings and aspirations of the people of the later decades of the Dark Ages.” The facade is dominated by a huge traceried rose window placed under a pointed arch and supported, in the design, by well-moulded columns. Below the columns are three oaken doors, with carved symbolic panel heads of masterly workmanship, opening upon the entrance porch. At the left, rises the simple and graceful tower, 112 feet high, pierced by typical pointed Gothic arches, and giving space to a large carillon of bells. Its decorated corner buttresses, the light tracery of the bell deck, and the ornamented battlement at the top, surmounted with the Gothic cross, all in limestone, complete the beautiful and imposing front elevation. Two entrance porches from West Hunt Street lead to the basement and upper church, and the projecting chapel is on the same side. The main doors of the church open into a broad vaulted vestibule or narthex, reaching from the tower on the left to a side entrance towards the rectory. The subdued colors of walls and ceilings, the terrazzo floor, in tones of gray, the wainscoting of violet Breccia Scagliola, make a fitting entrance, through leather-covered doors, to an interior which is one of the most beautiful in the United States. The sanctuary spans the width of the church, and at the back of the choir loft is a mullioned window, divided into five panels, which supports the exquisite rose window. Hangings of flowered silk damask, with decorations of gold, are suspended behind the altar, and under the arched opening to the side chapel at the left is a bishop’s throne. At the right is the sedilia. On either side of the sanctuary are the double vaulted chapels of the Blessed Virgin and of St. Joseph, decorated in blue and gold. The oak pews of the main nave provide seating for 1,100 people. Each of the large arched windows frames a stained glass representation of some scene in the life of Christ. At the rear of the high altar is the priest’s sacristy, where the vestments are kept, and the fireproof vaults in which are the sacred vessels. Stairways lead to the basement, sacristy, and lockerroom for the choir boys. The basement of the church, when completed, will form an auditorium seating 1,200 persons, and has two entrances from West Hunt Street. The entire building is of fireproof construction. The foundations are of concrete and the underpinnings and lower course of stone trimmings are of light Chelmsford granite. The exterior of the church is of buff, brown and red Weymouth seam-faced granite, the tracery of the windows of cement stone, and the remainder of the trimmings of Indiana limestone. The roofing is of Imperial terra cotta shingle tile, floor of the basement of cement and terrazzo, and the floor of the upper church of marble and terrazzo, with marble bases and scagliola wainscoting. The interior piers are of Caen stone, the columns of scagliola, the ceiling of structural steel, and the choir gallery, seating one hundred, of concrete and steel. The architect was Walter F. Fontaine, of Woonsocket. The entire building is surrounded by a beautiful and well-kept and well-landscaped lawn, and, with its setting, is one of the most beautiful churches to be found anywhere in this country. For the successful erection of this beautiful building, now entirely free of debt, both Father Laliberte and his people are deeply grateful to Bishop Hickey, who, from the drawing of the plans to the final completion of the edifice, aided the parish in every possible way. At the time of the dedication of this beautiful church edifice by Bishop Hickey, the great service which Father Laliberte has rendered to the parish was recognized and he was invested with the office of domestic prelate.

Right Rev. Joseph Alfred Laliberte was born at Lanoraie, Bertier County, Province of Quebec, Canada, August 13, 1868, son of Simon Laliberte, captain of a merchant vessel, who died November 1, 1916, aged eighty-six years, and of Odile (Vezina) Laliberte, who was still living in 1917. After completing his primary studies in Lanoraie, he entered, in 1881, the Seminary of Joliette, where he finished the classical course in 1887, receiving the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Throughout his course he gave evidence of unusual ability and of marked talent, but he especially distinguished himself during the two years of his philosophical study. On August 24, 1887, he received the tonsure and entered the Grand Seminary at Montreal, where he was ordained a deacon December 20, 1890. He was ordained a priest March 14, 1891, and two days later was appointed vicar at Saint-Eustache, where he remained for a year. On April 4, 1892, he was transferred, as vicar, to the parish of St. John the Baptist of Montreal, but delicate health, undermined by close application to study, made necessary a change to a more favorable climate, and on November 30, 1894, he was named vicar of St. Anne’s Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. There he performed a valuable service, endearing himself to his people and winning the deep respect of the community. On October 13, 1906, he was appointed to the newly formed parish of St. Matthew, at Central Falls.

Ability, zeal, devotion, and untiring energy have enabled Father Laliberte to achieve a great work here, and the parish and the magnificent church edifice stand as enduring memorials to his devotion. The parish now includes 1,000 families, some 4,500 souls, and Monsignor Laliberte is now assisted in his work by two vicars, Father Emile St. Pierre and Father Theodore R. Peloquin, who are ably following in the footsteps of the men who have preceded them. Former curates who have served during the pastorate of Monsignor Laliberte are: Father D’Amours, who was here one year; Father Joseph M. Pharneuf, who served from 1908 to 1914; Father Joseph Geoffrey, from 1914 to 1920; and Father Leo Savignac, from 1920 to 1929, all learned, pious and devoted men, who did all in their power to assist Monsignor Laliberte in carrying forward his great work.

The beautiful brick school building and the temporary schools have a splendid enrollment and are taught by seventeen Sisters and three lay teachers. Father Laliberte will soon begin enlarging and remodeling the school building, which, when completed, will contain nineteen classrooms, two special rooms for the Mother Superior, who will have charge of the school, two music rooms, and an assembly hall that will seat six hundred people. Since there is no indebtedness upon the parish, the temporary buildings now in use as convent and rectory will soon be removed and two beautiful, well-equipped buildings, corresponding to the church and school in material and general design, will be erected.

A splendid work has been accomplished at St. Matthew’s through the efforts of Bishop Hickey and Monsignor Laliberte, with the cooperation of a devoted and generous people, and both are deeply loved and venerated by the parishioners of St. Matthew’s.

Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.

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